Saturday, July 23, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: On China By Henry Kissinger

(No Chinese feathers were ruffled during the making of this book)

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, July 23, 2011
Published Under the Title: The new Peking order
Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

July 1971 is an eventful month for Nixon’s National Security Advisor (at the time referred to as a Secretary of State in everything but the title). He disappears from Pakistan, resurfacing in Peking and no one is the wiser. He manages to keep at least one of the two secret servicemen in the dark about the (earth-shattering) nature of his whirlwind trip. The secret mission to China, undertaken at Nixon’s behest, marks the beginning of a beautiful (!) “period of strategic cooperation” that has somehow passed numerous stress tests, withstood serious setbacks (Tiananmen Square) and seemingly insurmountable obstacles (Taiwan).

Archived issues of TIME magazine reveal that this former Secretary of State (1973-1977) was once hailed as “the American magician” by the Egyptians and labelled a “superstar” by Belgian and West German newspapers. Others simply dubbed him the “miracle worker of the Middle East”. Admittedly, some latter day historians have been more reserved in handing out accolades.

On the 40th anniversary of what was then seen as his greatest coup, Kissinger observes in Beijing that China — as the world’s largest creditor stands “on the cusp of the next world order” — a position once occupied by the US in 1947. His new book coolly assesses the four decade-old Sino-American relationship as “co-evolution” and not “partnership”, addressing the challenges posed by China’s growing stature amid proclamations of “peaceful development” (formerly ‘peaceful rise’) and the US’s need to retain both its “competitiveness and its world role.

But On China goes beyond the intricate foreign policy manoeuvres or ‘fancy footwork’ needed to keep that relationship afloat or why, for that matter, the US felt it needed to do so in the first place. It draws upon conversations with four generations of Chinese leaders to show how these warriors perform on an intellectual battlefield.

Here, readers not only get to hear the fascinating back-channel story of Kissinger’s hush-hush visit, they untangle four millennia of China’s history to appreciate “Chinese statecraft of accomplishing long-term goals from a position of relative weakness.” Kissinger has logged enough time fencing with Oriental minds to be able to break the Chinese Cipher without recoiling at its propensity for promoting domestic anarchy or clamouring for ways to rewrite their core philosophy. He recounts his more illuminating experiences of Chinese-style diplomacy. Who knew that “hospitality, ceremony and carefully cultivated personal relationships could be used as tools of statecraft”?

Between weathering many storms (some of its own creation), managing the barbarians (outsiders), recalibrating society on a whim and sending the Soviets into a paroxysm by exaggerating their ability to survive a nuclear strike — Red China has been slowly inching its way towards a new power bloc. The leaders responsible for overseeing an imperious China’s “century of humiliation”, managing its period of diplomatic isolation and putting it through the throes of the Cultural Revolution are meant to sway the audience with their exquisite diplomatic stagecraft and enigmatic prose. Deng is seen “conducting affairs with aplomb and self-assurance with which Chinese leaders seem naturally endowed.” Zhou has been described as a quintessential cold warrior who would have won the approval of American conservatives. Even when Kissinger admits the difficulty in summing up or comprehending “Mao’s elliptical and aphoristic comments”, he praises him for leaving behind a unified China, “clearing away the underbrush for reforms never intended by the Chairman, having taken a war-wracked country, manoeuvring it between competing domestic factions, hostile superpowers, an ambivalent Third World and suspicious neighbours.”

This China is not afraid of taking on a bigger adversary but has no hegemonic designs, is willing to wait for a lifetime for what it considers its rightful property and every once in a while does the phoenix routine. One marvels at the spectacle of invoking strategic principles from a millennium old event. Yet knowing that they can turn into aggressors just to prove a point (Indo-China half war) can be a tad disconcerting.

In Kissinger’s view, “The China of today — with the world’s second largest economy and largest volume of foreign exchange reserves is a testimonial to Deng’s vision, tenacity and common sense.” He goes on to add that this was “achieved at horrendous cost by relying on the tenacity and perseverance of the Chinese people, using their endurance and cohesion, which so often exasperated him (Deng), as the bedrock of his edifice.

He reminisces about the US’s initial contact where “neither side had an illusion of changing the others basic convictions” adding that “it was precisely the absence of any such illusion that facilitated our dialogue.” Sino-American rapprochement is shown as having started “as a tactical aspect of the Cold War,” eventually becoming “central to the evolution of the new global order”. Every so often Kissinger slips back into an advisory role, arguing that a reward for this rapprochement “would not be a state of perpetual friendship or a harmony of values but a rebalancing of global equilibrium that would require constant tending.” He also offers helpful insight into the potential direction of Chinese policy described as “a composite of ideology and national interest.

If China’s stealth rise threatens the established order, it makes sense that the White House roving emissary of yore would respond to these tectonic shifts preferably without disturbing the old order he helped craft. On China provides a comprehensive tour of the Chinese mainland marking the deep impression left by the Kissinger-era diplomacy and setting the tone for upcoming foreign policy matches.

The Penguin Press;

Pp 586; Rs 1,895

Saturday, July 2, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The Wandering Falcon / Author: Jamil Ahmad

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

First Published in Daily Times / Saturday, July 02, 2011

Republished by ChowkYadgar

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Jamil Ahmad’s debut novel is ostensibly about a boy and a stretch of land. At first glance, there is nothing special about Tor Baz. Is he the hero? He seems strangely absent from a major part of the narrative, so not a hero in the traditional sense of the word. If this is a coming of age story, the star billing must go to a land that has become a near permanent fixture on the western world’s radar.

Written sometime in the early 1970s and published in 2008, The Wandering Falcon is a fictional piece of work that charts a slow meandering course through the lawless frontiers. Undercurrents of danger have always coursed through its veins but recent events have bestowed a more menacing look and feel to the wild west of Pakistan.

Jamil Ahmad has a special insight into the ways of the tribes. As a Pakistani civil servant, he has served in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan for several years. By converting his acquired wisdom into an anthology of short stories, he provides a window into the heart and soul of a primitive system where honour and respect are the buzzwords while honour killings/revenge remain the unfortunate by-products. But, as he is quick to point out, it is not all bad. The prose may be simple but the subject matter is anything but.

The writer manages to fit complex patterns into confined spaces. Using Tor Baz (the black falcon) sparingly allows a wider cast of characters to come forward and take centre-stage. Readers enter the perilous world of the Mehsuds, described as “wolves” in “The Kidnapping” for they hunt in packs, which makes lone hunters like the Wazirs “the leopard”. The matter of fact statement that winter signifies a time of “raids, robberies and kidnappings” and that “in neither community is any stigma attached to hired assassin, thief, a kidnapper or an informer” gives one pause. (P86) This is an interesting observation given Greg Mortenson’s (of Three Cups of Tea fame) now disputed claim of being abducted in Waziristan. According to this book, these people pride themselves on playing perfect hosts to abductees and guests alike.

But it is not just their famed hospitality or long-lasting blood feuds that are given prominence. The book keeps a tight focus on the human element in a way that is designed to trigger an empathetic reaction by a simple change of perspective. Tragedies like “A Death of Camels” resurrect forgotten ghosts going back in time to witness how the new demarcations along the Pak-Afghan border endangered the nomads’ way of life. “A Point of Honour” observes the grim fate that awaits a group of simpleminded Baloch and takes a swipe at the state machination responsible for exterminating “a little of the spontaneity in offering affection, and something of their graciousness and trust” (P 34).

While the stories touch on constants like honour, revenge, loyalty, friendship, oppression and betrayal, they move steadily towards darker territory past the social stratification where marginalised sections of tribal society make their troubling debut. A woman is killed in the name of honour in the beginning and another is traded for opium and a hundred rupees in a later scene.

Both “A Pound of Opium” and “A Sale Completed” plunge headlong into the abyss where women are sold into marriage or worse. Their hardiness and courage is given due attention and the spectacular injustice somehow gets upstaged by something called tradition.

As for Tor Baz, he is present at the outset where a couple of elopers take refuge at an obscure military outpost and stays in sight as a young boy. Readers pick up his trail when he resurfaces as a young man in a bizarre world where informers advertise their business and settling disputes could mean going head to head in a battle of wits where wounded pride is the sole casualty.

Till the end, the protagonist remains on the periphery. He, like the land, is an enigma. And not being tethered to a single tribe means that he can weave his way in and out of no-go areas with ease. But he ties the seemingly disjointed portions of the book together, whether it is the story of a sardar who goes by the rank of a general (not a real general) with a son “the colonel”, again with no real claim to the title, or a mad mullah/clever conman/mentor who wanders the pages concocting an intricate plan involving German promises and British gold. Each story turns out to be a beautiful link forming an ancient chain carefully preserved in time.

The past ten years have wrought a radical change in the tribal makeup, rendering formerly inaccessible regions unrecognisable. Now viewed as militant sanctuaries, still inhospitable but inaccessible no more, for the words within these pages provide the most authentic portrait yet of these ungoverned places. The Wandering Falcon that had been waiting for 38 odd years to see the light of day has finally risen. At 78, Jamil Ahmad has written a tale that is both timeless and given the current state of affairs, timely.

Penguin Books;
Pp 181;
Rs 795.